Ever the teacher, Monsignor Charles A. Kelly offered a powerful lesson about life through his death.
The Eternal Banquet
Thousands of friends gathered in the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart last week to celebrate the life of a brilliant teacher and gifted homilist. Monsignor Charles A. Kelly, vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond and rector of the cathedral, died March 8 after a seven-month battle with cancer.
A March 12 vigil and wake preceded the March 13 funeral that was attended by hundreds of clergy from throughout Virginia and the United States, including Cardinal James Hickey. Among those who spoke at the evening wake was Vince Haley. He first met Monsignor Kelly when he was a student at William and Mary and Monsignor Kelly was the Catholic campus minister. Haley, who is now an attorney practicing in San Francisco, was among those at Monsignor Kelly's bedside when he died. His remembrance of Monsignor Kelly follows:
In thinking about what to say this evening, I kept coming back to the promise Jesus made when he told his disciples that when two or more are gathered in my name, there shall I also be. For me, sitting down at the table and sharing a meal with Monsignor Kelly was always an occasion when I understood vividly the meaning of this promise.
I met Monsignor Kelly after he celebrated his first mass as the Catholic campus minister at William and Mary and was graced thereafter to share dozens of meals with him over the 14 years of our friendship. He had this gift for making every meal seem like a sumptuous banquet with the Lord. With some combination of an appreciative gaze at the food, a framing touch of his plate, a fidgeting adjustment to a centerpiece, perhaps a compliment to the cook, and of course, warm words of praise to God, there was suddenly no question that the Lord was also present in this important event, taking in, along with us, what was almost always some variation of pasta.
How unimaginable it was such a short time ago that our beloved teacher would be called on to teach us firsthand how to face the pain of the cross. I am sure I am not the only one here who had so looked forward to having Monsignor say their wedding, baptize their child and share in the transforming moments of life and family. And faced with the loss, perhaps I am also not alone in having this longing that Monsignor Kelly could somehow communicate to us directly tomorrow, to make sense of the early death of such a beautiful and courageous man. For if anyone could do that, surely it was he.
And yet, despite Monsignor's death, I continue to have the joyful hope that he consistently urged should be the Christian's dominant mood. It has helped me greatly in the days since his death to hear other people tell stories about Monsignor and recall their favorite homilies, especially since so many of them contain a good dose of humor, something which I am very grateful to have in these days.
As Monsignor Kelly's family has gathered this past weekend, one such story I heard was how 6-year-old Charlie Kelly used to play mass. He would draft his little sister Mary Jo as an altar girl (he was clearly way ahead of his time), stick her in a corner and tell her to mumble something and act like she knew what she was doing while he proceeded with the main event of the holding forth of the Wonder Bread.
I love this story not only because it reveals how profound and early his identity was as a priest but also because it connects so directly to an experience I had of Monsignor in the last days of his life, during which his sister Mary Jo was lovingly tending to him and making sure he was as comfortable and free from pain as possible. Two to three days before he died, and after he had lapsed into a semiconscious and noncommunicative state, Monsignor began to move his arms from time to time in random motions, something which I understand many cancer sufferers do at this stage. He fidgeted with his sheets, he touched his forehead. These movements continued for a day and a half and occasionally increased in frequency and randomness.
And then, suddenly, out of these random movements, his hands came together in perfect coordination to grasp an invisible chalice, no doubt the chalice that his Aunt Alice and Uncle Joe Becket gave him for his ordination, and Monsignor reverently, slowly and with two hands, brought this invisible chalice to his lips. In the same way, he moved his hands to grasp an invisible wafer of bread, and again, brought it slowly and reverently to his mouth. Monsignor made these two sets of precise movements several times over the course of these two days. Several people saw him do this.
I cannot know what Monsignor Kelly was or was not thinking then. Yet, I do know that during the time that he was likely suffering the most, the living Charlie Kelly's response to suffering was to reach for the bread and wine.
In the face of such a living testament of faith, I know where my gaze must be fixed tomorrow: at the table of the altar, with a profound and joyful hope.
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